Climate Change: Catalyzing Threat To The National Security

Furthermore, climate change mitigation and disaster management should also fall under the umbrella of the National Security Council.

July 30, 2023, 12:19 p.m.

Today, as the global consequences of climate change continue to unfold, Nepal finds itself among the most vulnerable countries, bearing the brunt of these challenges. While many countries, including the United Nations, have recognized climate change as a threat to National and Global Security, Nepal has been lagging far behind from grasping the issue through the lens of National Security. Principally the Military, Economy, Development, Environment, Social and Culture, Politics, Diplomatic and Foreign Relation are among the parts and parcels of the National Security domain that the Climate Change has potential to affect at large.

Challenge to national defense

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) released a congressionally-mandated report on how climate change poses challenges to its military. The report highlighted two critical aspects: first, the increased direct threat to military installations, technologies, and operations; and second, the potential expansion of the military's role in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations due to the rise in disaster situations. Similar challenges are prevalent in the Nepalese defense domain as well. Military bases and installations have frequently been threatened by the consequences of climate-induced disasters such as floods, inundation, and landslides. During the 2008 Koshi flood, the barracks of the Nepali Army of Koshi Toppu Wildlife Conservation were submerged, necessitating the relocation of troops, equipment, and weapon systems to safer locations. Similar incidents occurred during the 2019 Rautahat and 2021 Nawalparasi events. Additionally, during the 2021 monsoon, a military sentry post in Chunnumbri, Gorkha District, was swept away by a flood in the Budigandagi River and the Helambu-based police office, and Armed Police Force camp of the Melamchi Drinking Water Project was also destroyed by the flash flood the same year. In 2015, a security base of the Nepali Army at Lamabagar, Dolakha, was buried by a landslide, causing damage to equipment and the weapon systems.

Experts also claim that the consequences of climate change have started interfering with military tactics and technologies. The changing operational environment due to shifts in weather patterns and the occurrence of more frequent and severe extreme weather conditions have altered operational environments, making military operations more unpredictable and challenging for planning and execution. For example, during mountain warfare training, troops are rarely taught about carrying operations at the time of high-altitude rainfall and flood. However, the extreme precipitation in Manang and Mustang in recent years has now necessitated the inclusion of such training. Similarly, the escalating extreme heat in the Terai region, increased intensity of heavy rainfall, shifts in seasonal rainfall, and changing patterns of monsoons also necessitate a review of attire, equipment, and even barracks systems for the forces, as they are often required to carry out regular operations regardless of changing weather conditions.

Likewise the increase of sever climate change related disasters have also warranted larger engagement of Military forces in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response Operations. The 2014 Jure landslide, 2017 terai flood, 2019 Bara Parsa rainstorm, 2021 Melamche and Manang floods are the instances that have already demonstrated how the forces are compelled to enhance their engagement and capabilities in humanitarian and disaster response operations whereas their primary responsibility is to defend the nation.

Complexity to the economy

Economy is another pillar of national security that is most affected by climate change consequences in countries like Nepal. Shifts in precipitation patterns, increasing temperatures, destruction of arable land, and insect infestation are the foreseen challenges that Nepal has already started to face in the field of agriculture, which is the most viable and dependent source of the economy. During the 2017 flooding in Terai, over 126,282 hectares of crops were damaged, costing USD 69.5 million. Likewise, over 812,000 poultry, 9,400 cattle, and 74,000 sheds were also affected by the same flooding incident, resulting in losses of USD 102.7 million. In 2021, the ready-to-harvest paddy worth NPR 8.26 billion was again destroyed by the post-monsoon rainfall. Additionally, research has also revealed that Nepal's river system carries around 336 million tons of arable soil annually across the border mostly in flooding season. The bed level of Terai's rivers has been rising by 35-45 cm annually, which means the productivity of riverside lands has been seriously affected by silting, flooding, and deposition of pebbles. As per national record Nepal has already lost 1.7% of its arable land due to soil erosion. In such bleakness, agrarian societies are getting poorer day by day whereas the government doesn't have any solid strategy to mitigate such challenges.

Furthermore, the loss of snow in the mountains, destruction of biodiversity, loss of heritage sites due to disasters, and unpredictable weather conditions also affect tourism, another viable economic source of the country. For an instance, in Lower Mustang, people have experienced a warm and dry winter, a decrease in water availability, and drought as a result of climate change. This has led to the loss of the region's natural scenic beauty. Untimely and intense rainfall and snowfall have posed serious threats to mountaineers, trekkers, and travelers. In October 2014, over 32 people were killed by a sudden snowstorm in the Annapurna Conservation Area, and hundreds of trekkers were trapped at an altitude of over 5,000 meters above sea level in Thorong La Pass. In November 2010, bad weather in the Mt. Everest region caused flight disruptions for several days, leaving more than 1,000 tourists stranded in Lukla. Such incidents not only reduce tourist inflows in the country but also affect economic viability. Trekker guides, hotel owners, air flights, transportation, and many others are affected by these circumstances. Likewise, banking, insurance, and financial services, as well as industries, energy, healthcare, and other sectors, are also affected by the climate change consequences, leading to repercussions on the economic viability of the country. For example, during Melamche flood, seven trout farms were washed away causing huge loss to the owners. The same year during Manang flood the branch office of Prime Commercial Bank and Prabhu Bank and few hotels were completely destroyed.

Effect on development

Moreover, the destruction of infrastructure and development work due to disasters will ultimately push the country decades behind in terms of prosperity. In 2021, the flood at Melamche alone caused a loss of 2 billion NPR to the Melamche Water project. In the same year, 12 under-construction hydro projects were damaged, with Madi Khola Hydro, a 44-megawatt project near completion, suffering the most significant loss. Similarly, the Sanima and Sunkoshi hydro projects were damaged during the Jure landslide dam burst flood in 2014, and the Upper Dordi Khola Hydropower project was damaged in the 2019 flood. According to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority (NDRRMA), around four dozen concrete bridges were damaged in the country during the 2021 monsoon. Recent monsoon-led flooding has destroyed three suspension bridges, five concrete bridges, and two hydro projects in Eastern Nepal. Now, imagine if Nepal, which is always craving for development, continues to bear such periodic devastation due to climate change-related disasters what will be the situation in next two to three decades. Indeed, it is a very sensitive issue that requires national and international attention.

Environmental degradation

Air pollution is among the foremost reasons of environmental degradation caused by climate change that is already apparent in the country. In 2022, the Air Quality Index (AQI) ranked Nepal among the top 16 most polluted countries in the world. According to the Nepal Health Research Council, air pollution-related Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is now responsible for around 16.3 percent of total deaths in the country, a significant increase from 6.1 percent in 1990. Moreover, recent years have seen an increase in health problems such as allergies, cancers, and neurological effects.

Additionally, the intense heat has led to a surge in forest fires, causing not only the destruction of greenery but also environmental degradation, particularly in terms of carbon accumulation in the environment. The Department of Forestry and Land Conservation reports that in Nepal annually wildfires burn approximately 200,000 hectares of forest land. According to the NDRRMA, within the last five months of the dry season, the country experienced 1,196 fire incidents, with 808 of them being forest fires. The Central Department of Water and Meteorology predicts that if the current climate crisis intensifies along the Himalayas, wildfires in Nepal will increase by 12% by 2030, 30% by 2050, and 50% by the end of this century. These alarming figures highlight the severity of environmental degradation in the country due to climate change.

Furthermore, water sources in Nepal are drying up as a consequence of climate change. The National Climate Change Impact Survey 2016, submitted by the National Planning Commission Nepal to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, indicates that 74.29% of total households across the mid-hills have observed changes in water sources, with 84.47% reporting a decrease in the amount of surface water. Additionally, 99.33% of households reported an increase in drought occurrences in the past 25 years. Similarly, a comprehensive study of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region carried out by ICIMOD in 2019 indicated that the current trend of global warming will lead to the loss of two third of snow from our Himalayas by the year 2100, which is already thinning out rapidly. This will cause water scarcity for 250 million mountain dwellers and the 1.65 billion people living in the river valleys below. Likewise, loss of biodiversity and degradation in ecosystem are also among the consequences that climate change is slowly garnering in the country.

Social and cultural consequence

Slowly but steadily, climate change is leading to the erosion of social and cultural harmony. Mass migration in search of employment serves as a prime example. The loss of livelihood opportunities, food insecurity, water scarcity, increasing disaster losses, and lack of access to development and infrastructure are exacerbating poverty, driving people to seek temporary solutions abroad. Moreover, internal migration from rural to urban areas in pursuit of a more comfortable and secure life is also on the rife. Consequently, rural villages are witnessing an exodus of young individuals and the male population. The looming threat of social conflict arises from the potential social inequality and resource disputes, particularly over water.

Furthermore, climate change is degrading cultural values, further fueling conflicts within and between societies. Disruptions in traditional livelihoods and indigenous practices due to resource loss and shifting climate patterns, as well as the destruction and degradation of cultural heritage sites, traditional food systems, and the transmission of traditional knowledge and values due to mass migrations are all contributing factors.

Ultimately, the deterioration of social and cultural values may culminate in social conflicts, which in turn undermine national security.

Interference into politics

Definitely, politics will be heavily affected in the long run by the consequences of climate change. Excessive poverty, destruction of development efforts, erosion of social and cultural fabrics, environmental degradation, resource conflicts, and the loss of natural resources may lead to crises in national politics, potentially attracting international interference. In such circumstances, the likelihood of political unrest and insurrection increases, as these situations can be exploited by extremist political forces. Theories and practices have demonstrated that high unemployment, widespread illiteracy, and extreme poverty create fertile ground for armed conflicts, as marginalized individuals are more susceptible to the allure of extremist ideologies.

Effect on diplomatic and foreign relation

Ultimately, the national situation and circumstances will inevitably affect diplomatic and foreign relations, which are already fragile in the Nepalese context. Experts claim that the impending water crisis resulting from climate change will deteriorate international relations, peace, and security in the South Asian region. Additionally, the cross-border spillover effects of disasters from India to the south and Tibet, China to the north pose another factor that may deepen the existing gaps in diplomacy and relations. Presently, we can observe the threats posed by glacial lakes in Tibet to many of our hydro projects that rely on the Himalayan river system. Similarly, the construction of one-sided flood protection structures by our southern neighbor in the form of road networks along the border area may lead to unforeseen situations in terms of foreign relations and diplomacy. Furthermore, mass migration, food insecurity, and the deprivation of development work can act as catalysts for further defiling this sector, potentially fostering conflict and crisis in the region.

Possible way out

Since the issue of climate change is highly complex and critical, Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation, as well as Disaster Risk Reduction and Response, should be the topmost priorities for the nation. They should be viewed and addressed through the lens of national security. Unfortunately, to date, the government has not given them due consideration and has treated them as ad-hoc ventures of thematic ministries. This approach will not help meet the needs of such a sensitive issue. There is a need to establish an autonomous entity to oversee climate change and disaster management, providing it with the necessary authority and resources.

Furthermore, climate change mitigation and disaster management should also fall under the umbrella of the National Security Council. After all, national security is the primary responsibility of the organization. Indeed, the time has come for the nation to think beyond and above these critical issues, as time is passing swiftly and the road ahead appears to be challenging and uncertain.

Dr. Malla is a climate change and disaster management expert.

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